(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, dated 10 March 2012, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/entertainment/reviews/paan-singh-tomar/371311.html)
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Brijendra Kala, Mahie Gill, Vipin Sharma
Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Rating: 3.5 stars
Only Irrfan Khan could have pulled off a role that requires him to be petulant, commanding, beseeching and awe-inspiring at once. He’s proved what a fine actor he is with films as varied as The Warrior, where he plays a very different wronged hero from Paan Singh Tomar,The Namesake, where he plays a gentle father and husband, and movies like Life in a Metro, where he plays a fast-speaking, almost comic character. As an army man turned athlete turned rebel – he insists on being called baaghi, not dacait – he carries Paan Singh Tomar, leaving the viewer troubled as s/he walks out of the cinema.
It takes a performance like this to move an urban audience from indifference to the violence of the ravines, to anger at the systemic failures that force promising young men into crime. At the beginning of the film, we relate most to an official who brusquely says no family dispute in the Chambal Valley gets sorted out without a couple of killings. Towards the end, our empathy is entirely with ‘Paan Singh Tomar gang’, headed by a man who says he won’t surrender, on the basis of a sporting principle – when you start a race, win or lose, you must finish it.
However, the film flounders for a focal point. Paan Singh’s constant refrain that no one gave a toss when he was a star athlete, but the entire nation knows his name now that he’s a baaghi, and a dedication at the end to “our unsung sports heroes” seems to indicate the movie is about athletes who didn’t get their due. But the corrupt cops, and the intricate portrayal of the change in Paan Singh’s attitude towards the system, suggests this is about the rise of dacoits.
Tigmanshu Dhulia’s painstaking efforts are obvious – the research is thorough, the film was mostly shot on location, and the recreation of the athletic meets is remarkably realistic. A serious story is punctuated by moments of hilarity – the errands Paan Singh’s wife (Mahie Gill) assigns their children to get them out of the house when she wants to make love, Paan Singh’s jibes at an overweight journalist (brilliantly played by Brijendra Kala), the manner in which the gang evades border checks, and idiosyncratic scenes where a policeman is made to apologise to his uniform, a kidnapped son yells at his father for trying to bargain over the ransom, and a prospective bride’s family agrees to an alliance because the groom’s father has had his picture in the papers. From the jokes by the campfire, to the hot-headed young men, every aspect of the film rings with veracity.
There are poignant moments too – where Paan Singh is surprised softy ice creams are available in India, and wants to know their price, where he can’t resist an interview because he’s finally getting attention, and where he refuses to believe the army can be corrupted, even while buying army-issue guns. There are moments of cinematic excellence, but the profusion of parallels between his steeplechase days and his running over hurdles to escape the police begins to grate. Ok, dude, we get it.
I wish they’d shown us why Paan Singh became so notorious. The canvas appears rather too small – there’s been no real crime against important people, the gang colludes with the police, Paan Singh’s army connections take him a long way; so why does a family dispute merit an attempted encounter?